The only thing falling apart faster than our planet is the personal life of Michael Beard, the fictional lead of Ian McEwan's Solar. He's a brilliant scientist, to be sure, the winner of the Nobel Prize in physics for the Beard-Einstein Conflation, much in demand not only as a research scientist but also as a public intellectual of sorts, the kind of guy likely to show up as a talking head in a documentary on climate change, speaking persuasively about his plans to use the immense power of the sun to create artificial photosynthesis, to craft the means to save us all.
But Beard himself is a mess, grotesque and downright unlikeable to boot, yet oddly irresistible to women. "He belonged to that class of menvaguely unprepossessing, often bald, short, fat, cleverwho were unaccountably attractive to certain beautiful women. Or he believed he was, and thinking seemed to make it so," writes McEwan of his anti-hero. Indeed, at the opening of Solar, Beard is on his fifth marriage; although he himself has had countless affairs, he's devastated when his wife has just one. So distraught does Beard become, in fact, when he learns of his wife's infidelity, that he makes a crucial mistake in a moment of passion, one that will have huge implications for both his personal and professional lives.
Beard is practically the embodiment of entropy; his body is decaying even as he finds himself unable to quell his hungers for things as mundane as greasy crisps or as potentially life-altering as sex. In his role as a climate scientist, he's perpetually aware, on an intellectual level, of humanity's unceasing tendency to destroy itself through overconsumption, its inability to change course, to make better, more rational choices. "How," Beard wonders while gazing through an airplane window, "could we ever begin to restrain ourselves? We appeared at this height, like a spreading lichen, a ravaging bloom of algae, a mold enveloping a soft fruitwe were such a wild success. Up there with the spores!" But the great irony of McEwan's novel is that Beard, of course, is oblivious to these same tendencies in himself, to how the foolish choices he makes are destroying his own little corner of the worldand might perhaps have even broader consequences.
Ironic, too, is the way in which Beard is able to speak about science. The passages in which McEwan quotes large segments of his informational and motivational speeches are brilliantly crafted pieces of popular science writing, Beard's knowledge of and apparent passion for his chosen field shine through every word, inspiring both Beard's audiences and McEwan's readers. But the narcissistic, short-sighted internal monologues that compose much of the rest of the novel call into question not only Beard's motivations but also the reader's sympathies. McEwan asks readers to perform a difficult task: to respect a character's work even if we might not respect the man behind it.
In several previous novels, Ian McEwan has shown himself to be a master of blending the language of science with his own artistic sensibilities. Beard himself fails to masteror even comprehendthe purpose and nobility of the arts and humanities, his sole arena of competence the small piece of science for which he's become famous. Here we have a man who is charged with saving humanity even though he despises his fellow humans, a character conversant in the terminology of science who fails to grasp the language of love.
This review was originally published in May 2010, and has been updated for the March 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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